A sweeping Victoria University restructure has alarmed New Zealand’s tight-knit geoscience community – with one prominent earthquake scientist worried it could spell the loss of “world-renowned” expertise on our biggest natural hazards.
Yesterday, the university confirmed that 229 jobs may go as part of a cost-cutting shake-up, along with seven courses – among them, a postgraduate programme in Geographical Information Systems (GIS).
From next year, no new enrolments would also be taken in the university’s geophysics undergraduate programme and in its physical geography undergraduate and postgraduate majors.
Faculty members expect to hear next week how individual roles will be affected – but it’s understood numerous jobs are likely to be on the line.
The university’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences is home to many of our best-known experts in fields ranging from geophysics and volcanology, to climate change and human geography.
Faculty member and volcano seismologist Dr Finn Illsley-Kemp told the Herald that the three programmes targeted in the restructure were “crucial areas of training for a raft of important areas for New Zealand”.
Undergraduate students trained in those programmes typically went on to careers in a wide range of fields, from geotechnical and coastal engineering to the geothermal sector and energy.
“Even in the policy space, these areas are really important places to have scientifically trained people.”
There were also obvious implications for New Zealand’s research capacity in areas – earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami, especially – that directly affected our communities.
“What we really excel at in this school is natural hazards and our fundamental understanding of things like earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami, landslides and climate change events,” he said.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that we are at risk of losing internationally-recognised, world-class scientists, which would have a huge impact on our small country, as there’s not many of these people here.
“I’ve had messages from abroad, and back home in the UK, with disbelief that New Zealand would be cutting its capability in such an obviously crucial area of future resilience in this country, and in this city.”
Those sentiments have also been echoed by Professor Mark Quigley, who became the country’s most recognisable earthquake scientist in the aftermath of the Canterbury events a decade ago.
“The geophysics and the physical geography programmes are world-renowned – they’re not niche,” said Quigley, now based at the University of Melbourne.
“They have many, many talented academics who are doing fantastic research, who are advancing scientific knowledge, and who are contributing meaningfully to societal needs.”
Quigley said that many other geoscience programmes around the world had been facing similar cuts, despite being directly linked to the UN’s sustainability goals.
In Victoria University’s case, Quigley said its researchers were a “critical link in the chain” in geoscience partnerships with Government and agencies like nearby GNS Science.
A GNS spokesperson told the Herald that the institute had a “close and highly valued relationship” with the university, and appreciated its important part in supporting the country’s “science capability and our future hazardscape management”.
The funding crisis across our universities – hundreds of job cuts are also possible at Otago University - has also drawn deep concern from the Geoscience Society of New Zealand.
The society had directly approached Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Education Minister Jan Tinetti, and planned to lobby vice-chancellors, its president Dr Katherine Holt said.
“Climate change and natural hazards, such as earthquakes, landslides and floods, are phenomena which constitute a clear and present threat to our economy, our society and our way of life,” she said.
“Losing significant research capability from these areas would undermine the planning and response to hazard and climate events in the future.”
Society vice-president Dr Sam McColl said future challenges that’d come with transitioning to green energy, preserving natural resources like critical minerals, or addressing natural hazards would require a strong workforce trained in geosciences.
As it stood, he said, the country wasn’t producing enough geoscientists to meet demand.
“The proposed cuts will further increase the divide between the supply and demand of a workforce trained in geosciences.”
A university spokesperson told the Herald that although it was closing the programmes, it was advancing others that drew on the disciplines, and would be retaining geographic information systems within its undergraduate geography and space science majors.
“While we are in a transition phase to the new programmes, the school and the university will ensure that all students will be able to complete the existing majors and postgraduate qualifications.”
Head of school Dr Monica Handler said that, while the review would inevitably lead to job cuts across the university and in her school, “we will expedite our plans for refreshed degree offerings in the geosciences”.
“Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic over the past three years, and against a backdrop of reduced funding of universities in real terms, we remain committed to training the graduates that are needed to face the environmental, resource management, and societal challenges of the future.”
Faculty of Science dean Professor Louise Dixon said: “Current students are reassured that they will be fully supported to complete their existing programmes, whilst the new student intake in 2024 will be able to benefit from revitalised degree programmes in the geosciences.”
Other programmes proposed to be discontinued at Victoria University include Italian, German, Greek, Latin, postgraduate design technology and secondary school teaching.
No new enrolments would also be taken next year in workplace health and safety, and graduate diplomas in secondary school and early childhood teaching.
Eight programmes would see no change while others like theatre, classical performance, and jazz performance would be integrated with other programmes.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Nic Smith, said the proposed changes and staff cuts would bring the university close to addressing its $33m deficit.
“This is a hugely challenging task and I am grateful for the hard work and professionalism our staff have demonstrated during this process,” he said.
“I know this is a blow to our community, but I also want to acknowledge our areas of strength and distinctiveness, and our historical legacy as a university.”
The university has supported an open letter to the Government from the Tertiary Education Union and students’ association to “save our universities”.
Jamie Morton is a Taranaki-based reporter who covers science and environmental issues. He joined the Herald in 2011 after writing for various newspapers around New Zealand.